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Owners, customers react to small business openings

Shoppers waited for their turn to enter JOANN Fabric and Craft Tuesday afternoon. A limited number of people at a time could visit the store on 4045 Commonwealth Ave., so customers wearing masks stood six feet apart on green taped Xs until someone exited the store.

Similar scenarios occurred around the state Tuesday, as select businesses opened for the first time in about two months. Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday that nonessential stand-alone and strip-mall stores could immediately reopen but had to follow social distancing guidelines and could serve no more than five people at a time.

Tuesday marked a small step toward a large-scale reopening, something that area residents hope will proceed. Stores posted signs informing customers of the five-person capacity and social distancing restrictions. Some offered hand sanitizer at the entrance. Customers and employees wore face masks. Most businesses opened at slightly reduced hours but could adjust depending on customer response.

The announcement Monday surprised many people, but shoppers visited businesses they previously frequented to purchase supplies for a home project or because they wanted to do something.

Local resident Theresa Blaskowski went to JOANN Fabric in search of a calendar and a few craft items. Ann White stood in line several feet away. White resides in Cumberland and wanted to leave her home and visit a store.

Before Tuesday, White minimized her shopping excursions, only buying groceries about every three weeks. Like most people, she has grown weary of COVID-19 and its impact on everyday life.

“I’m tired of it,” White said.

Apart from shopping limitations, White misses seeing her grandchildren. Blaskowski wishes she could still volunteer as a hospice worker, which she used to do three times per week.

Blaskowski worries about the ability of small businesses to recover from the coronavirus. She has tried to shop locally as much as possible and minimize online purchases.

Eric Thompson, owner of Pedals Music, 307 S Barstow St., was pleasantly shocked when he saw Evers’ announcement and had friends texting him the store could reopen. Thompson enjoyed interacting with customers Tuesday, though COVID-19 presented changes to his shop, such as encouraging customers not to touch something unless necessary.

Dan Goelzer, owner of The Calico Shoppe and The Purple Petunia Gift Shop, 216 S. Barstow St., did not expect the announcement either and said Tuesday involved a bit of a scramble to open the stores and post new hours and capacity restrictions.

Goelzer is encouraged by Evers’ decision and hopes progress continues. He said the past two months have presented overwhelming challenges for his small businesses.

“The word is ‘impossible,’” Goelzer said.

The stores offered online ordering and curbside pickup, but those sales were minimal. For a business like The Calico Shoppe that specializes in fabrics, in-person interaction is crucial in determining what to buy.

Calico Shoppe customer Roxi Hagel agreed. Shopping in person allowed her to know exactly what material she wanted.

“You gotta touch it and feel it,” Hagel said.

Hagel felt elated when she found out the store reopened. She used to visit multiple times per month and enjoyed socializing with employees and other customers.

“This has been a killer to not be able to come here,” Hagel said. “I miss all my friends … It’s nice to get out and chat with other people.”

The pandemic has eliminated happenstance encounters and casual shopping. People said they missed the opportunity to browse in a store, meet a friend for coffee or have dinner with their spouse. As of Tuesday, at least one of those options was available.

Fauci warns: More death, econ damage if US reopens too fast

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert issued a blunt warning Tuesday that cities and states could “turn back the clock” and see more COVID-19 deaths and economic damage alike if they lift coronavirus stay-at-home orders too fast — a sharp contrast as President Donald Trump pushes to right a free-falling economy.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” Dr. Anthony Fauci warned a Senate committee and the nation as more than two dozen states have begun to lift their lockdowns as a first step toward economic recovery.

The advice from Fauci and other key government officials — delivered by dramatic, sometimes awkward teleconference — was at odds with a president who urges on protests of state-ordered restraints and insists that “day after day, we’re making tremendous strides.”

Trump, whose reelection depends to a substantial degree on the economy, talks up his administration’s record with the virus daily.

Underscoring the seriousness of the pandemic that has reached Congress and the White House, Fauci and other experts testified from their homes. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander chaired the hearing from the study in his cabin in Tennessee, although several committee members attended in person in an eerily empty Capitol Hill chamber, masked and sitting 6 feet apart.

The tension in balancing people’s safety from the virus, which is still surprising doctors with the sneaky ways it can kill, against the severe economic fallout is playing out in many other countries, too. Italy partially lifted lockdown restrictions last week only to see a big jump in confirmed COVID-19 infections in its hardest-hit region. And Lebanon relaxed a national lockdown late last month but said Tuesday the restrictions are being reinstated for the rest of the week after a spike in reported infections.

More infections and deaths are inevitable as people again start gathering, but how prepared communities are to stamp out those sparks will determine how bad the rebound is, Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances, when you pull back on mitigation you will see some cases appear,” Fauci said.

Move too quickly and “the consequences could be really serious,” he added. It not only would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”

With more than 30 million people unemployed in the U.S., Trump has been pressuring states to reopen.

A recent Associated Press review determined that 17 states did not meet a key White House benchmark for loosening restrictions — a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates. Yet many of those have begun to reopen or are about to do so, including Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Of the 33 states that have had a 14-day downward trajectory, 25 are partially opened or moving to reopen within days, the AP analysis found. Other states that have not seen a 14-day decline, remain closed despite meeting some benchmarks.

Fauci expressed optimism that eventually vaccines will arrive, along with treatments in addition to the one drug that so far has shown a modest effect in fighting COVID--19. But it would be “a bridge too far” to expect them in time for fall when schools hope to reopen, he said.

For now, “all roads back to work and back to school go through testing,” said Alexander, the Republican committee chairman.

Although Trump declared this week, “we have met the moment, and we have prevailed” in increasing and improving virus testing, Republican senators on the panel were noticeably less sanguine.

A lack of testing has dogged the U.S. response from the beginning, when a test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran into numerous problems. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said the U.S. may finally have outpaced testing leader South Korea but that country has far fewer deaths because it started testing early.

“I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever,” Romney said.

Trump administration “testing czar” Adm. Brett Giroir said the U.S. could be performing at least 40 million to 50 million tests per month by September. That would work out to between 1.3 million to 1.7 million tests per day. Harvard researchers have said the U.S. must be doing 900,000 by this Friday in order to safely reopen.

And a test only tells if someone is infected that day — they could catch the virus the next day. Pushed by Alexander on how the nation’s 100,000 schools and 5,000 colleges could reopen in August, Giroir expressed confidence there would be enough tests for schools to devise safe strategies, perhaps by testing a certain number of students every few days.

Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 4.2 million people and killed over 287,000 — more than 80,000 deaths in U.S. alone, the world’s highest toll. Fauci said U.S. deaths likely are higher than the official count.

While Fauci has become the trusted science voice for millions of Americans, Sen. Rand Paul expressed frustration with his cautions. The Kentucky Republican said Fauci was not the “end all” in knowledge about the coronavirus and it’s “kind of ridiculous” to suggest children shouldn’t go back to school — something Fauci never said.

“We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci said.

While children do seem less susceptible, doctors in New York are investigating about 100 youngsters whose COVID-19 may be linked to a rare and dangerous inflammatory reaction. Three have died.

COVID-19 is devastating nursing homes as well, with infections and deaths soaring among residents and their caregivers.

“If we are able to get masks to everybody in the White House, I hope we can get masks to every nursing home employee who needs it,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who also asked why those vulnerable populations were having a hard time getting tested when employees in contact with Trump get a daily test.

The White House recently recommended that states test all nursing home residents and staff within the next two weeks.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., blasted the Trump administration for “criminally vague” guidance on how states can safely reopen their economies. He pressed CDC Director Robert Redfield on why detailed recommendations prepared by agency experts had been shelved, as reported by The Associated Press. Redfield replied that those recommendations should appear on the agency’s website soon.

Three of Tuesday’s experts, Fauci, Redfield and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, are in “modified quarantine” after two White House staffers recently became infected but they’re allowed to attend critical administration meetings, masked and keeping their distance.


Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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Antibody tests here; experts warn caution

It’s getting easier to access tests for COVID-19 antibodies, which indicates that your body has already responded to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in the Eau Claire area, but experts are hesitant about the tests’ broad usefulness.

Affordable Lab Tests-Eau Claire is offering an antibody test at its Mall Drive site for $199. Provisions Health in Eau Claire says its FDA-approved antibody test has over 90% accuracy, though it’ll set you back $195.

Interested people don’t even need to have symptoms of COVID-19, or a positive test for the virus, to get tested for antibodies at Provisions Health, said Amy Schlosser, the clinic’s chief operations officer.

But local and state experts say that the tests aren’t broadly useful yet beyond confirming if someone has been infected with the virus — and the tests shouldn’t be used to decide if it’s safe to go back to a workplace, stop social distancing or visit elderly family members.

“They are useful for providing evidence whether someone was infected in the past,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state Department of Health Services’ chief medical officer and communicable diseases epidemiologist, in a phone call with reporters Tuesday.

“The presence of antibodies doesn’t necessarily mean someone is protected or immune from the virus. There’s a lot of hope that’ll be the case someday … but it’s very important for people to understand the science doesn’t support that right now.”

There isn’t current evidence that someone who has had COVID-19 is immune to the virus, even in the short term, the World Health Organization warned on April 24.

State and health officials have repeatedly said the same thing: Don’t assume you’re immune, even if a test indicates you have COVID-19 antibodies.

“Really until we have a vaccine or a better understanding of antibody tests, people can’t assume because they’ve been exposed and ill at any point that they are protected long-term,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a Tuesday news conference.

In the same vein, the state isn’t using positive antibody tests to determine if it’s safe for people to return to work, Westergaard said.

“Right now we see them mostly as a public health tool,” he said. “If an individual wants an antibody test mostly to satisfy curiosity, it wouldn’t allow us to make any decisions about whether it is safe to go back to work.”

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department isn’t recommending antibody testing “for broad use” right now, Giese said.

“What’s useful right now is to get actual COVID-19 testing to make sure we’re tracking disease,” she said.

Some Eau Claire area hospitals are considering antibody tests too − but all are hesitant about the usefulness of testing individual patients, at least right now.

Marshfield Clinic Health System has developed a COVID-19 antibody test, but there’s a lack of national guidelines on how to use the test to care for patients, said Dr. Kori Krueger, medical director of Marshfield Clinic’s Institute of Quality, Innovation, and Patient Safety.

“What we do know is if the test is used inappropriately, it can give false information and unnecessarily increase medical costs with no added benefit to patients,” Krueger said in a statement, adding that when more guidelines come, the clinic is prepared to meet the need.

HSHS Wisconsin hospitals and Prevea Health clinics are also “internally validating how and when to use the test,” the hospitals said in a statement.

Mayo Clinic Health System is conducting a “variable” number of antibody tests for research and to find COVID-19 plasma donors, said Dr. Janki Patel, Infectious Diseases Department chair at Mayo Clinic Health System in Northwest Wisconsin.

Experts: Antibodies take time to develop

After they administer an antibody test, which involves a blood draw, Provisions Health sends samples to a laboratory in Florida, where the plasma is tested for COVID-19 antibodies, said Provisions Health CEO Gwen Sweeney.

People can expect their results in 24 to 48 hours.

Studies suggest that most patients don’t develop antibodies until the second week after their symptoms begin, according to the WHO.

False positives are also a possibility. Antibody tests “may also cross-react with other pathogens,” including other coronaviruses that occur in humans, creating a false positive, according to the WHO.

So people who suspect they have COVID-19 shouldn’t immediately rush in for an antibody test, Schlosser said.

“We’re seeing sometimes it’s taking more than seven days to develop the antibodies, or for them to show up (in a test),” Schlosser said.

Provisions Health is also offering a program billed as “Return to Work Safely” on its website. In that program, staffers will come to a workplace and administer separate COVID-19 tests and antibody tests, Sweeney said.

Provisions Health has already conducted some testing at Wisconsin workplaces, Sweeney said.

Two different tests

Experts warn that antibody tests aren’t perfectly accurate.

In the past six weeks, “a large number of (antibody testing) products came to market in an unusual way,” Westergaard said: “Initially, a lot of companies could sell point-of-care or small antibody test kits without a lot of regulation, and the FDA recognized a lot of those didn’t have great data behind them, didn’t perform as well.”

On May 4 the FDA updated its policy on serological tests, tightening rules about the tests’ accuracy.

“It is a test that initially had a lot of problems, and many of the COVID-19 antibody tests were found to be not very valid,” Giese said. “ … The performance of those COVID-19 tests are not perfect. If people do get an antibody test, it’s not a perfect understanding of whether or not you have been exposed to specific COVID-19 disease.”

Health authorities have cautioned the public that antibody tests and tests for the active COVID-19 virus are very different.

A test for COVID-19 usually involves a swab in the nose or the upper part of the throat behind the nose.

A blood draw is needed for an antibody test. After someone has already been infected with COVID-19, the test may show antibodies, or immunoglobulins, in the person’s blood.

Provision Health says its test detects either IgM antibodies — often the first antibodies that form in someone’s blood when they fight an infection — or IgG antibodies, which can take longer to materialize in the blood.

Mayo Clinic Laboratories suggests people wait to take its antibody test, which detects IgG antibodies, until at least 10 days after symptoms start to show.

Antibody tests, or serology tests, are becoming more widely available across the state and are being used “in a wider range of settings,” Westergaard said.

“The usefulness of antibody tests is pretty limited right now, but they’re becoming more reliable in telling if someone has been exposed,” he said. “They’ll probably continue to evolve.”